Stoking the Conference Expansion Fire!


Spring football is behind us which means that we’re still more than three months away from the start of the 2010 college football season. But this summer is likely to see the buzz surrounding conference expansion reach a fevered pitch regardless of whether the Big Ten announces what its plans are or not.

college footballAnd you can blame the Big Ten for stoking the conference expansion fire as this heralded Midwestern sports league seeks to add one or more universities. The fire will quickly die if that team ends up being Notre Dame as its move from a non-conference football program (Big East for all other sports), won’t have a profound impact on the rest of college sports.

But we all know that Notre Dame has spurned the Big Ten’s overtures in the past and, with a lucrative television contract still in place, has no financial reason to give up their current arrangement. That means the Big Ten plus Penn State Conference is looking elsewhere, as far east as Rutgers and Connecticut and as far southwest as has been rumored, Texas.

Any big change will force a major realignment of conferences all across the country, with a good chance we’ll be left with a handful of super conferences in the wake of that tsunami.

Let’s get one fact straight before we look at the latest speculation regarding conference realignment. As reported by, the Big Ten has said that they are only considering expansion, having not said that they are officially doing so. We don’t need to parse words here…the Big Ten will expand at some point because if they don’t, the other conferences most certainly will.

Now let’s look at some recent news that could presage what will soon become fact regarding conference realignment:

Catbird Seat – Rutgers visibility has risen tremendously thanks to its much improved football program. Its men’s basketball program isn’t much to speak of but it low revenue women’s basketball team is routinely a strong regional contender (the first two sports are the money makers for most universities). But there is a geographic component that makes Rutgers a strong candidate and that is, of course, its access to the powerful New York media market. If the Big Ten doesn’t grab Rutgers, expect the ACC to make a play for the school with UConn and Syracuse also given consideration to help fill out the league’s northern flank. In any case, Rutgers stands to gain much more by leaving the Big East than staying, and has the academics to benefit either conference.

Big East Nuke Option – Pronounced dead when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted for the ACC, the Big East has rebounded by adding Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida. Don’t be surprised if the Big East does some poaching of its own as the conference recently hired former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue as its special adviser for strategic planning. That means Tagliabue is looking at firing the first shot, something that could be announced in the coming weeks or month with the Big East announcing that Villanova has agreed to abandon the FCS for the FBS with Notre Dame signing on for football. But Tagliabue won’t stop there: he may raid Conference USA for two or more schools too.

Westward, Ho – If the Big Ten looks south and west, that sort of move will be felt all the way to the west coast. Arguably, the Pac 10 has been weak in football and men’s basketball in recent years, with the exception of USC football. Pete Carroll has left USC which means that this school is at once no longer the top team in the league and an unlikely contributor to the demise of west coast football. The Pac 10 hasn’t changed at all since 1978 when Arizona and Arizona State joined the league. If the Big Ten goes to 16 teams, the pressure put on the other conferences to expand will loom large with Idaho, Boise State and perhaps Fresno State and San Jose State pulled in to the Pac 10.

Southern Exposure – Consider the Big East dead if Rutgers, West Virginia, Pitt, Syracuse and UConn leave or even if just three of those schools join the Big 10. The SEC isn’t about to lose its place as the top football conference in the country and will likely make a play for South Florida, Cincinnati and Louisville, perhaps stealing an ACC team such as Clemson or Georgia Tech to balance the league. Cincinnati would be a geographic stretch but that school would offer league balance as the Bearcats would be in proximity to Louisville, Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Yes, West Virginia goes to the ACC the moment the SEC takes Clemson.

At one time I was against major college football going the super conference route, but after the Big East was raided by the ACC, I understood that conference survival means taking some extraordinary steps to ensure a long life. My personal scenario? Here it is: Tagliabue goes for the nuke option and the rest of the conferences join in. By 2012, we’ll see five or six super conferences, each consisting of 14-16 teams, possibly more.

Oh, it is going to be a FUN summer filled with conference expansion speculation!


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